About a year ago, we officially moved the Ask Fedora user support web site to a new platform. The work started around February 2019. We archived the old Askbot instance and we moved to Discourse. This post looks back on the first year with the new site.
Making the migration
We set various goals for the move. Since similar to Askbot, we planned to use a deployment that was hosted and supported for us. Askbot, while it had worked well enough, lacked certain features and a modern user interface that we thought was necessary for a good user experience.
The main objectives were related to a new way to communicate and share knowledge. Discourse fit the bill very well for this. Similar to Askbot, where upstream hosted the instance for us, Discourse also allowed paid hosting. This freed up community resources that would otherwise be spent on non-trivial tasks of packaging, deploying, and maintaining the software ourselves.
When a user has a problem, they ask a question and await an answer. Generally, we noticed that on support forums the questioner expect precise and concise sets of steps leading to the solution of their issue, somewhat like a support service provided in industry. Since Askbot was a question and answer platform designed for questions to be answered, it did not lend itself well to discussions. It was designed for questions and solutions, not for discussions and troubleshooting that enabled users to converge on solutions.
Nobody in the community is expected to serve as a help desk operator. Similarly, it doesn’t quite work when users act like costumers of a product, either. That’s not how Free/Open source communities work. They work on a voluntary exchange of knowledge and ideas. No end user is a user in the commercial sense of the term. Obviously there are system rock stars, experts, developers and maintainers: such people has more experiences and knowledge than novices. But nobody should really be demanding an answers from them: we are all here to learn and share experiences, knowledge and to help each other.
A new experience
So, we imagined something different: discussions instead of questions that expect answers. The main goals of the new forum platform were the discussion, involvement, and encouragement to learn and to participate in the community life.
In Ask Fedora, we share tools and techniques to diagnose the problems. We invite people to file bugs instead of ranting, we push people toward the right documentation on docs.fedoraproject.org and if a document is outdated, we invite them to contribute. We also share community events where people could be easily involved (i.e. test days). In short the new Ask Fedora is much more than a support forum, it is a channel for discussion based troubleshooting.
Initially, many people raised various concerns about the value of information contained in the old platform and a series of concerns about search engines pointing to the old platform. These concerns were valid, but with the limited resources at our disposal, it was not possible to migrate the information. Given how fast Fedora moves, while some general queries and solutions remain relevant across releases, a lot of release specific information gets outdated quite quickly. So we decided to put all the available effort toward setting up a new, fresh platform instead of spending it on the maintenance and migration of a lot of generally outdated information from an older platform.
We spent a lot of time evaluating the categories of the forum. Within the possibilities that Discourse allowed, we ended up with the smallest set of categories that would enable organisation of information without adding complexity that would confuse users. We preferred to cover the main areas: for each language there are two categories Install/Upgrade and Fedora Usage. A more detailed organisation of posts is left to the tags. In addition, another category is the Community related one (with the “On contributing to Fedora sub category”).
To ensure that information that remained relevant to current releases, we, with the help of numerous forum users, identified and moved the most common and still up to date issues to the Fedora Quick Docs. To ensure that there was no single point-of-contact (point-of-failure), we spent some time documenting necessary bits into a series of standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Since Fedora is a global community, the current category structure allows splitting the forum into smaller bits each dedicated to a particular language. It is important that all these languages have community members actively looking after and moderating them. With help from the community, we set up a few initial languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Persian, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese. We can add more languages through new categories, but we do make sure that the volunteers that step forward to maintain them are able to commit the necessary time and resources to the forum.
For more information on the discussions and process that we followed, you can read all the tickets related to Ask Fedora on pagure
How it’s going
The forum is running very well. There are new topics every day, and plenty of active polite and welcoming discussions. Flagged posts (e.g. posts reported by the users because not respecting the Code of Conduct) are extremely rare. The English category is most active, with the “on using Fedora” receiving most posts. An active team of moderators help when needed. The Discourse trust system rewards active users, so we have a much larger team of moderators on the forum that when we had started: a good sign!
An important feature that attracted us towards Discourse was the possibility of gathering data on usage. This was not straightforward in Askbot. Here, we have some data from around Feb 2019 to December 2019.
There are 659 active users. With an average of 50 new users every month. (Note: the authentication system is limited to FAS).
Discourse has its own reward system similar to Fedora Badges, but not integrated with that platform. It has four levels called “trust levels”. The more the users interact with the forum, the more they gains trust so they can level up. While more than 50 people easily reached level 2, only a have reached level 3 (users can loose their trust level if they don’t maintain their activities over time). Finally, 21 spammers took the time to create FAS accounts to spam the forum. These were all detected, deleted from Askbot, and the FAS accounts reported to the infrastructure team as well.
Here are the numbers of topics (posts) under each category:
- a total of 1315 topics in the English category
- 17 in the “Discussions” Category
- 1072 in the “On using Fedora” subcategory
- 226 in the “On installing or upgrading Fedora” subcategory
- 17 in the “Discussions” Category
- 72 topics in the whole “Community related discussions” category
- 41 topics in the “Site feedback” category
- 37 topics in the “Lounge” category
- 33 topics in the “Staff” category
- 8 topics in the “New users! Start Here!”
These are the numbers for each language category:
- 30 topics in the Spanish categories
- 4 topic in the Italian categories
- 44 topics in the Persian categories
- 10 topics in the Chinese Simplified categories
- 9 topics in the Chinese Traditional categories
As we can see, even non-native English speaking people prefer to ask questions in the English category, possibly because it is more active so there are greater chances of receiving help.
And these are the totals:
- 1603 topics
- 157 marked as solved by staff
- 396 marked as solved by members (the users who asked the question)
Heroes of Ask Fedora
The staff and community members of Ask Fedora want to thank these users for their great contribution, time and great work for the community.
- vgaetera, with 40 posts marked as solution
- nightromantic, 26
- xtym, 16
- QuLogic, 10
- Alone, 10
- refi64, 10
- fasulia, 7
- florian, 5
And thanks to everyone else… and keep it growing.
For the future, we hope that Ask Fedora increases in usage. We ask the community members and the seasoned contributors to take a look to the topics and help other people with useful answers and discussions.
We don’t intend Ask Fedora as a replacement for any other discussion channel. It is not the single official Fedora support platform. Many people feel more comfortable using a mailing list. Other people prefer to use an instant messaging platform like Telegram or IRC (i.e. #fedora channel on Freenode). Other people like other forums not affiliated with the Fedora community. Each platform isn’t meant to replace the others: the key is to help each other.